The adperson’s take on “Don’t think of an elephant”

You know that old idea that as soon as someone says “Don’t think of an elephant,” there’s one thing you just can’t stop thinking of.  (Clue:  large, grey, big floppy ears if African, trunk.)

I discovered the adperson’s equivalent many years ago, and to share it with you I have to admit that back in those days I worked (a bit, and among many other things) on advertising for cigarettes. The adperson’s equivalent of “Don’t think of an elephant” was something called the CAP code – I think it stood for Code of Advertising Practice, so it doubled up on the word “code” a bit like the longhand version of the Dutch financial firm ING Group is in fact International Nederlanden Group Group.

The CAP code laid down all the things you weren’t allowed to do in cigarette advertising.  For example, you couldn’t claim that smoking a particular brand made you more successful, or cooler, or more attractive to the opposite sex, or indeed to your own sex.  No adperson in their right mind would want to do anything so ludicrously implausible and crass.  If anyone did, consumers would have mocked the brand to oblivion.  We all knew this.  And yet somehow…

Somehow, the very existence of the code and its many prohibitions meant that we all spent 99% of our time and energy trying to find ways to get round it.  We were obsessed with finding ways to hint, or to imply, on just to enable consumers to conclude, that such-and-such a brand did indeed make smokers more successful or cooler or more attractive or all the rest of it.  It was ridiculous, and our clients’ compliance people nearly always made sure our stupid ideas could never appear.  But, “Don’t think of an elephant” – we couldn’t help ourselves.

The equivalent in financial services is a little bit more complicated – you might say a bit more conceptual.  We’re not allowed to say anything definite about the future performance of investments (except guaranteed investments, obvs, which are a whole different ballgame).

Of course it’s fine that we’re not allowed to, because in our rational minds we don’t want to.  We fully understand that nothing definite can be said.  The whole thing about investments is that their outcomes are uncertain.  And yet somehow, the existence of the rules ensures that we spend 99% of our time and energy trying to find ways to get round them.   We’re obsessed with finding ways to hint, or to imply, on just to enable consumers to conclude, that such-and-such an investment is sure to deliver them an excellent return.  If we could, we’d put a number on it. It’s ridiculous, and our clients’ compliance people nearly always make sure our stupid ideas could never appear.  But, “Don’t think of an elephant” – we just can’t help ourselves.

Don’t worry, I haven’t taken all the good bits out

The book (No Small Change, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson) continues to inch its way towards publication (on May 31st), but this last week has seen unusually eventful inching.

It would be churlish to comment in any way other than positively on the role of our delightful publishing team at Wiley, so I’ll politely suggest that the reason no-one there had actually read it until a week or two ago was their complete confidence in its excellence.

However, when someone there did eventually read it, I hope they found it excellent but I know they found it a bit troubling from a legal point of view, with particular regard to a) quite a large number of possible libels, and b) a rather smaller number of possible breaches of copyright.  At the 57th minute of the 11th hour Roger the lawyer was given the manuscript to read, and at the 58th minute he came back with eleven pages of closely-typed areas of concern.

At the 59th minute I sat down to work through them all, and owing to the lack of available minutes there wasn’t much opportunity for negotiation, just an opportunity for JFDI.  A couple of good bits did have to go.  But I’m here to reassure you that there are still quite a few good bits left.  And if you buy a copy, I can share some of the deletions on a one-to-one basis.


Honestly, who wrote this rubbish? Ah, I think perhaps I did.

I’m about half-way through correcting the proofs of my forthcoming financial services marketing book No Small Change, co-written with my old friend Anthony Thomson.  For an inveterate copy-tweaker like me it’s a challenging exercise, because we’re under strict instructions not to change anything unless it’s obviously and embarrassingly wrong – a typo, for example, or an incorrect fact, claim or number.

I haven’t actually read large chunks of the book since I finished writing it late last summer, and I have to say I have almost no memory of much of it.  For example, I’ve just read a paragraph slagging off’s website, which I don’t recall ever visiting, and I’m amazed by the apparent strength of my feelings on the subject.

Coming back to all this material with a largely fresh perspective, I find myself frequently unsure whether to leave it as it is or make changes to it.  I don’t really think I have anything much against moneysupermarket,com’s website, and anyway I’m sure they’ve changed it all since the iteration I was writing about.  I know a couple of people there, and I have no desire to fall out with them.  And the criticism I’m making – about a lack of integration with the brand’s TV advertising – applies to dozens of financial services firms:  why should be singled out for such a kicking?

On the other hand, my brief is clear:  don’t make changes unless what’s written is obviously and embarrassingly wrong.  It’s neither, and also it’s actually quite funny.  Unfair maybe, but I think I’ll leave it as it is.